Croatians Bust International Arms Ring

Missiles, machine guns and explosives seized in Croatia are believed to have been destined for republican guerrillas opposed to the Northern Ireland peace process, Irish police said today.

A spokesman said Croatian police had intercepted the arms earlier this month, arresting several Croatians in the port city of Split. Senior Irish police officers then flew to Croatia.

Following the seizure, one man was arrested in Dundalk, close to the Northern Irish border and is being detained nearby in Monaghan, police said.

“The haul included anti-tank rockets, sub-machine guns, commercial explosive and detonating material. We believe the weaponry was destined for this country,” the spokesman told Reuters.

A Croatian Interior Ministry spokesman said the arms appeared to have originated in Bosnia.

Croatia at a Turning Point

The Bosnian border is largely controlled by extremist Bosnian Croats who have defied all efforts by Bosnia’s international controllers to oust them. The Bosnia-Herzegovina region is regarded as an “offshore haven” for weapons, drugs and other illicit dealings.

Power has been dominated by hard-line nationalists who support late President Franjo Tudjman and his HDZ nationalist party.

But the new government, under President Stipe Mesic, has promised full cooperation with the international community on all international trade issues. This includes co-operating with the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

There has since been a visible clamp-down on drug-dealing and human trafficking. And several leading businessmen are facing charges of corruption.

The seizure also marks a turning point in Croatian co-operation with the authorities worldwide on arms smuggling.

Croatia is notorious for its role in arms smuggling especially during the wars of the last decade in the Balkans.

Western intelligence authorities have accused Tudjman and his HZD nationalist party “clique” of actively encouraging arms smuggling to all sides in the conflict; the Bosnians, the Kosovars, and even the enemy Serbs.

They accused him and the clique of pocketing the profits from such deals. The arms appeared to be coming from Russia and some of the former Soviet states, but some consignments were also suspected to have come from Libya, Irag, Afghanistan as well as Israel.

Split, where the police announced they had rolled up a major drug ring earlier this week, is an international port and thus an obvious target for smugglers. It remained mainly under Croatian ontrol during the 1991-1994 war with Serbia and became an established route then, particularly for smuggling banned weapons into Croatia.

Trimble Welcomes the News

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, First Minister David Trimble, who has criticized the Irish government for not doing enough to rein in dissident guerrillas, welcomed news of the arms seizure.

“I’m very glad to see that happening because we’ve been increasingly concerned about the level of activity by dissidents,” he told reporters following a meeting in Dublin with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern.

He said he was heartened by news that Irish Justice Minister John O’Donoghue would meet British Home Secretary (Interior Minister) Jack Straw to discuss security and also by the work carried out by Britain and Ireland to curb guerrilla attacks. “In terms of the cooperation taking place, I don’t need to labor the point that the fact that so many operations by dissidents have been frustrated is in itself testimony to the effectiveness of the cooperation,” he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.